Billy Reed: McIlroy’s disastrous start will be hard to overcome, even on home soil

Billy Reed: McIlroy’s disastrous start will be hard to overcome, even on home soil
Billy Reed

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) — Hard as it may be to believe, Rory McIlroy has not won a major golf championship since the 2014 PGA Championship right here at Valhalla.

That was Rory’s best year in golf. He came to Louisville fresh off winning the British Open (or just “The Open,” as the Brits would have us call their national championship). He was every bit as hot as Brooks Koepka is now.

He didn’t exactly disappear. He has lurked around the leaderboard in a few majors. But he also didn’t become the next (fill in your favorite icon).

So here he was on Thursday, teeing it up at Royal Portrush Golf Club, an emerald of a course tucked away in North Ireland. (Actually, there are two courses there, and two holes from the “secondary” course will be incorporated into the layout for The Open.)

But this was different. This was home. And the galleries following McIlroy were huge and loud and brimming with great expectations.

The other home lad will be Graeme McDowell, winner of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He will have more than his share of fans, but McIlroy was the one anointed by the locals as their best hope.

Until recently, many American fans had never heard of Royal Portrush. In 1951, it became the first course outside England and Scotland to play host to The Open. But the big event hasn’t come back until now. One reason could be the protracted civil war that ripped Ireland apart. For some reason, golf fans are not big on bombs and automatic weapons.

The pros who have played it seem to love it. That would not include Tiger Woods, who had never played the course until he showed up a few days ago. He admitted his game probably wasn’t ready for the challenges offered by Royal Portrush, uncharacteristic for Woods.

Louisville’s Justin Thomas is in the field, and wouldn’t it be sweet if he could accomplish on McIlroy’s course what McIlroy accomplished at Valhalla? But Thomas has been pretty quiet this year and probably won’t be among the favorites.

McIlroy owns the Royal Portrush course record, a 61 shot when he was 16. Yes, you read that correctly. But the course he will play this week is not the same one he played back then. And so many eyes will be on him that the pressure will be ... well, he shot a quadruple bogey eight on the first hole, parred the second, and bogeyed the third.

That’s five over par after three holes. So right away he’s in one of life’s pothole bunkers. From now on, it’ll be a grind for him, a scramble. Rarely does a player overcome such a disastrous start.

It wasn’t that Royal Portrush was playing particularly difficult. It looked more or less like a typical Open course, and golfers know what that means. Accuracy off the tee is vital, so the players will leave their drivers in the bag on a lot of holes. It will be better to bounce approach shots onto some greens instead of shooting for the pin. As always, the winner must do a good job of reading the greens and avoiding three-putt hell.

I’m not sure what the patrons will do in their spare time. I assume the village has a lot of excellent Irish pubs and restaurants. Surely there will be plenty of boutique shops. I understand a castle used in “Game of Thrones” is only a few miles away.

I’d be perfectly fine with McIlroy winning because it would be a great story to write and report. Besides, when he was at Valhalla, he seemed like a nice chap — polite, humble, friendly.

But it will take a comeback best described by Irish poets instead of mere sportswriters.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter and regular contributor of sports columns to Contact him at

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